About a year ago, I got stranded in Colorado by a Christmastime blizzard. So Matt Belfoure and I went mountaineering. We woke early, drove to Guanella Pass, hiked the last three miles up the closed, snowed in road, then toiled across a neverending sea of willows towards Mount Bierstadt. Postholing every step for nigh on two miles made us reconsider our ascent (not to mention the cold, low cloud ceiling, and blowing snow). We left, cursed the mountain, and vowed to return more properly equipped at an equally stupid time of year.
Fast forward 53 weeks. Apryle and I loaded the car with a winter expedition’s worth of clothing and gear and drove to Denver. Emily had decided to join us this year, despite the unbelievably brutal forecast. It was to be clear and cold, with a high of twenty degrees in Georgetown. We anticipated temperatures in the zero degree range at the top of Guanella Pass and much, much colder on top of Bierstadt at 14,060 feet above sea level.
After a brief discussion, we decided to abandon hopes of extending the adventure along the Sawtooth Ridge to neighboring Mount Evans and stick to Bierstadt as our solitary goal. Given the experience Matt and I had the year before, a single winter 14er would be plenty for our spindly frames. Seven-thirty and we went to sleep, to fully prepare for the ass-whupping that lay before us.
We woke surprisingly easily at 3:30am and piled into Emily’s new Subaru. The drive to Georgetown was short, only about 45 minutes in the predawn calm. As we ascended from Georgetown up Guanella Pass, the temperature dropped. Zero degrees. Negative four. Negative six.
We dressed and geared up in the car, all afraid of what lay in wait outside. After struggling with fleeces, balaclavas, boots, gaitors, and gloves, the cold air was almost welcome when we tumbled out into the snowy darkness at 5:30 AM. Within minutes, though, the reality of the cold started to sink in, and we moved quickly to strap on snowshoes in the frozen darkness.
The Guanella Pass road was snowed in heavily, and we sunk six to twelve inches even with our snowshoes. Apryle, Matt (a machine incarnate) and I took turns breaking trail. We labored up the road in the freezing cold, thankful for the relative lack of wind and eager for the subtle warmth of the winter sun.
As we crested the pass the sun was just beginning to rise, but the wind tore into us. We took shelter in the Forest Service bathroom, a simple vault toilet blockhouse. No heat, no seats, just a bit of wind protection. We huddled in the crapper from 9:00 AM for about an hour. Matt boiled tea and hot chocolate on the jetboil while I alternately warmed Apryle and Emily’s near frozen feet on my belly. Emily wasn’t too happy about the conditions, not being particularly inclined towards the suffersome aspects of winter mountaineering, but agreed to continue apace and see what conditions lay ahead.
By the time we left the toilet, the sun was pouring down welcome warmth upon us. Matt and Apryle had started ahead breaking trail while I helped Emily warm her toes. Emily and I caught up to the trail-breakers just as the trail steepened. The wind was ripping along the flanks of Bierstadt at 30-40 mph, and after about a mile through the willows Emily had had enough. She began the hike down with Matt in tow. Apryle and I plowed on upwards. I was resolved to reach the summit; I did NOT want to have to go through this again.
Temperatures were in the high negatives as Apryle and I gained the higher flanks of the mountain. We forged our way through the brutal wind towards the summit ridge. We were both worked, and being slowly frozen by the razor-like winds. As we neared the ridge, we engaged in a futile search for shelter behind rocks to eat and drink, but the relentless wind and blowing snow kept us moving.
Fifty feet from the summit, I thought we might not make it. The wind was too cold, the slope too steep, and I was (in hindsight) starting to feel slightly altitude sick. After literally thawing the ice off our noses, we agreed to make a last effort to the summit.
I felt no elation on top, just cold, nausea, and hunger. We hadn’t eaten or drank significantly in hours, as the cold kept us moving. The summit was oddly sheltered from the tearing winds we had encountered on the climb, but it was cold. We later estimated the temperature to be around ten below when we hit the summit, not considering wind-chill. I took off my right glove to take some photos and unwrap some candies, but only managed a minute or two before the cold overcame my fine motor skills and we decided to turn tail and run.
The wind was bad on the ascent. It was indescribable on the descent. What had been blowing us up the mountain now blasted us full in the face. We took turns examining each other’s exposed skin for ice and frostbite, and I stopped every minute or two to warm my dangerously frozen schnoz. We literally ran down the mountain, dodging boulders and plowing through snowfields. We were concerned about the time, concerned about our skin, and worried that we would keep Matt and Emily waiting until the wee hours.
We made the descent in good time, dropping nearly 2,400 feet back to the valley, but climbing back from the bottom of the willows to the Guanella Pass road took all I had. We stopped again in the crapper to eat, drink, and take some aspirin. We were both weak with cold and exhaustion…but we had summited and the road was all downhill to the car.
Snowshoeing down the road was a blur. One foot in front of the other, keep the nose warm. Nothing worse for frostbite than refreezing. What do you get from a frozen tomato, thawed, refrozen, then thawed again? Sauce.
Despite having to break trail both up and down the mountain, we made it back down to the car in surprisingly little time; 5:30 pm, a twelve hour day. Matt had watched us climbing, took some photos, and we estimated our summit at around 1:00 pm. Turns out they hadn’t waited too long at all…and Emily was plenty happy to wait in the warm car rather than suffering up the mountainside.
Apryle came through the experience remarkably unharmed. She had never experienced conditions so cold, and performed like a champion. I was very impressed. After a good night’s sleep she was nearly fully recovered. I made it to the summit, but suffered moderate frostbite to the left side of my nose. It is healing, but will take some time and may scar slightly. It took me two or three days before I was fully recovered. Matt was a machine, and I have no doubt that he could have summited if he wished….though the conditions were truly awful and I am shocked that Apryle and I had the resolve to continue. Emily may be the only smart one…Bierstadt was a definite reminder of her distaste for suffering up steep hills in the winter.
All in all, it was a good experience. I will stop short of calling it fun, but there is no doubt that it was rewarding. I have never experienced a combination of conditions so awful. I have been out in colder weather, stronger winds, heavier snow, and higher altitude…..but on Bierstadt we had terrible cold, gusty winds, blowing snow, and altitude all in one walloping package. I feel that I am a better mountaineer for the experience and am proud of the accomplishment. Even if Bierstadt is regarded as “an early winter shakedown” for expert 14er baggers.